Ralph Stanley

My All and All

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Now that Bill Monroe has passed away, only one great voice left from bluegrass music's first generation remained, Ralph Stanley. And though he and Monroe were both staunchly traditional high-tenor singers, beyond that surface similarity you could hardly find two voices more different. Monroe's style was informed by the coal mines first and by the church second; though he could sing gospel convincingly, he was more likely to deliver a Jimmie Rodgers blue yodel than a hymn, and he played mandolin with a proud virtuosity that spoke wordless volumes about his fierce personality. Stanley, on the other hand, always has the church in his voice. He hardly ever yodels, and he rarely sings about muleskinners or coal mines. Instead he sings about God and sin and the resurrection, and his voice cuts like a whipsaw and echoes like a stainless-steel bell. Or it used to. Now that he's 70 years old, his voice doesn't really cut anymore. But it has lost none of its power to raise the hair on your neck -- though it quavers and cracks, it is never off-pitch, and Stanley's palpable religious fervor is undiminished. My All and All is an all-gospel album, featuring several hot young players and singers (notably banjoist Steve Sparkman and the young Ralph Stanley II), all of whom consecrate their prodigious chops to the work of the Lord on tunes both old ("Jesus on the Mainline," "The Uncloudy Day") and new ("While Eternal Ages Roll," the title track). Stanley sings lead about half the time and plays banjo, unfortunately, very little; though Sparkman acquits himself beautifully, fans might miss the flying ice-chips sound of Stanley's picking. But even in the absence of his banjo playing and in the relative weakness of his voice, the power of the music here is both visceral and spiritual.

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